by Zubeida Mustafa

The “weakness of women”, widely believed to be a natural phenomenon, is actually a myth. Women are resilient and there are many cases where “woman power” won the day because women fighting for a cause refused to back off.

Perween Rahman Poster from the website Photograph courtesy of Aquila

The valiant social activist Perween Rahman was gunned down two years ago in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi. Perween was the director of the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute, in which capacity she was working to improve the life of the poor. An architect by training, she shunned thirty years ago the opportunity to make a successful corporate career. After joining an architectural firm, soon after her graduation, she said to herself,” I do not want to spend my life building palaces for the rich. I’d rather build homes for the poor.” And that is what brought her to the OPP, at the time the recent creation of its founder Dr Akhter Hameed Khan. And she did exactly what she wanted to do, help the poor build shelters for themselves at affordable prices. She went on to do much more – show the poor how they could live with dignity and self esteem. In the process, Perween instilled confidence in the people she worked for – both men and women – and empowered them. Such was her charisma and the magic of her personal humanism.

But this is something the rich and the powerful do not like. Hence Perween became an anathema for many. In Karachi, which has become a city of death with far too many vested interests – economic and political – it is not difficult to hire a killer for a few thousand rupees (less than 30 USD) to eliminate an ‘undesirable’ person. That is what Perween had become: undesirable. She was emerging as a barrier in the way of those whose avarice knows no bounds.

Karachi is a city with many treasures upon which the greedy cast covetous eyes. Land is one treasure. Perween’s activism was not the loud slogan-chanting one which helps blow off steam that attracts a lot of attention but hurts no one. On the contrary, her style was the quiet one of a researcher who has all her facts and figures accurately on her finger-tips and knows how to use her information.

Perween and I often discussed Karachi in long after-dinner chats. Karachi is a city dear to both of us – though Perween is no more there and the Karachi of my childhood is fast becoming non-existent. I have been writing about the OPP since the days that the legendary Akhtar Hameed Khan fascinated me with his deep insight into and understanding of the issues that made Karachi what it is and his development strategies that won him international recognition. Perween delved deeper into these issues, underpinning her work with solid data that she collected assiduously.

Perween Rahman. Photograph posted to the Justice for Perween Rahman Facebook page and courtesy of Aquila Ismail.

Before her death, she was focused on the land issue, especially the 2000 goths (villages) that ringed Karachi on its northern periphery before the city plunged into a rapid phase of spatial expansion in the late nineties. On these lands, people lived for generations with ownership rights that long-time inheritance and occupation traditionally bestows.  Now these areas are falling victim to the land mafia which sees gold there. Two years before Perween met her terrible fate, she told me that the land grabbers were having a field day in these goths without it even being reported. According to Perween, the eviction of the poor and the illegal sale of the encroached land was fetching Rs 25 bn (245,712,500 USD) every year to involved parties.

Under the law, this land was to be regularized and registered and this is what Perween began to do on the quiet. She was succeeding and nearly a thousand villages had been regularized. It is intriguing that ever since the killer pulled the trigger in the darkness of the night of 13 March 2013 no goth has been regularized, the OPP claims. This should not be difficult for the court to ascertain.

Fourteen petitioners, backed by 8000 signatories, filed an open petition demanding justice for Perween Rahman. They want the courts to provide justice in a land where a prime minister and an ex-prime minister have been blown up with no trace of the killer being found. Three petitioners are organisations – HRCP, Saiban and PILER – but of the remaining eleven, six are women who include her sister Aquila Ismail. Aquila’s grief gives her courage and she refuses to give up. All the other co-petitioners – men and women – are equally determined as many of them were Perween’s colleagues and friends who believe in the cause she stood for.

The court – the highest in the land – has been helpful. It has set up a judicial commission to investigate, knowing that the police may not be inclined to be very helpful if they were really involved as they often are in land grabbing cases. Since the judges have been firm, some parties are now trying to bring pressure on the victim’s family and the OPP workers to withdraw their case. The police officer, who visited Perween’s home where her 80-year old mother now lives with Aquila, should have known better. The petitioners are strong in their will and determination. Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and  a co-petitioner in Perween’s case, spoke at a press conference last week disclosing the goings-on behind the scenes. She expressed the determination of the petitioners when she said, “We have lost three great women working for society — Parween, Zahra Shahid and Sabeen Mahmud. We are no longer afraid and will take this matter to the court if justice is not upheld and the loss of lives not prevented.”

The masked faces trying to eliminate the legacy that Perween has left behind know that to break the OPP is a strategy to destroy Perween’s work. OPP workers have been receiving threats and one was even attacked. One board member, Arif Hasan, has said the mapping section of OPP, which is at the centre of all these threats, has had to relocate. Without operating from Orangi, it cannot perform effectively.

When the case was first filed in the court in 2013 the petitioners’ demand was for justice for Perween Rahman. But they know the case goes deeper. If the real criminals – those who ordered the killing – are exposed, justice will also be done to many others who have been shot in Karachi at the behest of unscrupulous elements seeking personal gains. Moreover the message will be clear. Every life is valuable, and the state will be held accountable when it fails to provide security for any of its citizens.

Justice in Pakistan: Unmasking Perween Rahman’s Killers